July 25, 2017 | by Mark Stephen O'Neal
It was December 10, 2012; and I was on my way to work after being on vacation for a week. I had used the last of my days because I couldn’t carry them over into the next year, and that burned-out feeling I had a week prior was gone. There was nothing out of the ordinary happening on this particular day at first as I made my way to Interstate 94—a thirty-minute ride from my home in Dolton, Illinois. Traffic flowed steadily to downtown Chicago until I got to the Kennedy-Eisenhower split, so I exited the expressway at Twenty-Second Street and Canalport to avoid the traffic buildup. I then drove northeast on Canalport Avenue to Canal Street, and I rode Canal Street all the way to the Apparel Center where I worked for over sixteen years as a Sorter Operator for a financial services firm.
I routinely circled the perimeter looking for free parking and found a spot next to Jewel-Osco grocery store that was three blocks from the job. I remembered it being cloudy and briskly cool while I hastened toward the dock area of the building. The usual suspects were on break taking a smoke, and I customarily greeted the security guard before heading to the elevator. There was usually a long wait for the freight elevator to come down to the basement—but not on that day. It came right down a few seconds later after I pressed the button.
There was something strange in the air at that moment, but I couldn’t quite put a finger on it. I rode the elevator alone up to the eighth floor and looked at my watch. It read two thirty-six. Damn, I was late again by six minutes, I thought. Being late was a bad habit that I’d developed over the last year—I had a good attendance record, but punctuality wasn’t my strong suit. I had been going through the motions for years because I’d reached a point where I was unfulfilled at work and saw no future in staying with the company.
I got off the elevator and walked past the women’s bathroom to my left toward my area to swipe in, and there was dead silence. We had been in the process of moving the entire department to the other side of the building on the eighth floor before I went on vacation, and the move was completed once I had gotten back. All the computers, supplies and coworker’s personal belongings were gone; and all that remained within the area were the empty desks and cabinets, the empty racks where the checks were stored, and the obsolete DP-1850 check sorters that were shut down completely a month ago. My job had been phased out, and my company was moving in another direction. However; I had been training on the newer, slower check processing machines that were equipped to handle a much smaller volume of transactions and felt somewhat secure that my job was safe for the time being.
I scanned the entire office and couldn’t find a single living soul, so I left the area to go to the other side where everyone else appeared to be. That was when I was met halfway in the hall by one of the first-shift bosses, and she requested that I follow her to one of the conference rooms in the vacant office. I sensed at that moment my services were no longer needed. The head of the department and a human resource administrator were waiting for me once we arrived in the conference room. The first-shift boss left, and the three of us had a closed-door meeting. I was then told that my services were terminated, the company was moving in another direction with the changing of technology within the firm, and I had a severance package coming. They also said there was assistance available in finding another job courtesy of the company, and they wished me good luck in my future endeavors.
The meeting lasted ten—maybe fifteen minutes or so—but who was counting? I shook both gentlemen’s hands, gave the human resource guy my ID, and left the building without a personal escort. I’d witnessed dozens of former employees whisked out of the office as if they were common criminals threatening to blow up the building because they had been fired, but I was able to leave with an ounce of dignity for having clocked in sixteen years of service. Or maybe they let me leave on my own accord because everyone else was safe and secure on the other side of the floor. Nevertheless, I didn’t give it anymore thought after I made my descent to the first floor lobby on the elevator.
My last day was just how I had envisioned it—no tears, no goodbyes from coworkers, and no regrets. I’m sure I was the talk of the office for a day at least, and I even got a text from my team leader wishing me well. I’m a loner who shuns any spotlight or fanfare; so my departure was the perfect ending to a solid, but unspectacular career at my former place of employment.
I sauntered back to my car trying to digest what had just taken place. I wasn’t angry, worried or sad—surprisingly I felt relieved and free. The thought of never having to darken the doorstep of my former employer gave me a sense of peace that I experienced for the first time in my life. I was now able to pursue my writing full-time, and I could apply for the jobs that offered the salary comparable to the lifestyle I wanted to live because my severance package would allow me several months to be selective in my job search. My only apprehension was telling my wife the news because I was unsure as to how she was going to react. To my delight, she has been and continues to be hundred percent supportive, and this eased my burden tremendously. I remember asking her if she wanted me to wait for her to get off of work once I called her to break the news, but she told me no and to go home or visit my parents because she had another two hours to go.
I left the downtown area and got on the southbound Dan Ryan Expressway. My plan was to stop off at Walgreens to pick up a few personal items and stuff for the house before heading home. Welcome to the first day of the rest of my life.